Transcendental confusion

I was in high school when I first read Walt Whitman. I remember being introduced to the idea of Transcendentalism, finding something about it intriguing, and liking something I read by Whitman. He’s lumped in with both the Transcendentalists and Romantics, but if you think of Transcendentalism as the American spin on Romanticism, or as two highly entwined movements, that makes a lot of sense.

I picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass somewhere, in which the poem Song of Myself is prominently featured. When I read it, I realized with excitement that I was already familiar with it. I was in a choir as a child, and someone picked out several passages to arrange into a chorale piece. It’s about innocence and death, which Whitman seamlessly entwines without allowing it to become dark…


Not all the lines shown above made it into the song, but I remember being introduced to Whitman and realizing…I recognize this. It made me curious to see what else he had to say.

Twelve years later, I had a Master’s in Literature.


Whitman is a uniquely American poet. The hallmark of the English Romantics was a certain embrasure of darkness, horror, and awe. There’s awe in Whitman’s words, but not in the same context. The American movement was annoyingly optimistic, which I think is why so many people prefer the English version. I confess to preferring horror and gothic elements to self-reliance to optimism. Exploring a dark cemetery on a stormy night is a lot more fun than hanging out at Walden Pond.

But before we dismiss Transcendentalism as being boringly cheerful, it’s worth noting that while Whitman began Leaves of Grass prior to the Civil War, he released an updated version after it. And Whitman saw the Civil War, in all its gore and tragedy, up close – and wrote about it. A lot of it was patriotic, but it delved into darker places than his earlier work did. Later, these poems were added to Leaves of Grass, along with Song of Myself.

There’s privilege within the Transcendental mindset, which chafes at me when I examine it through the eyes I have today; namely how it frames individualism. I do agree that religion and strict adherence to political parties is corruptive. I also agree that social institutions can stifle individuality, and that governments and dominant paradigms can sometimes overreach.

However, the focus on self-reliance is something that’s so ingrained in the American psyche that we often use the concept to shame the poor or justify not helping people who need help. It feeds into our self-congratulatory nature, into our delusion that we don’t need government or taxes or aid programs, and we sure as hell don’t want to pay for anything that might help someone else rather than directly benefit us. We forget that there are civil and social structures all around us that help us to live, to travel, to access resources and supplies.

The Transcendentalists were also into communal living experiments and believed in the idea of an Oversoul that connects all people, so there was still an underlying idea of connection to others – but outside of the hegemony of society.

I can see in Transcendentalism the roots of a lot of pernicious attitudes that float around today. Whitman himself, though anti-slavery and a progressive in many ways, was also a racist. We can’t ignore the bad things in favor of romanticizing a man or a movement. We can’t divorce poetry from its context; we have to take both of them in order to do a really thorough analysis.

This isn’t a topic that is randomly on my mind, but one that I’m thinking about for larger reasons. \I’m attempting to marry my lit background into a social sciences context for the current Master’s I’m pursuing. And, because I’m not entirely tone deaf, I’m grappling with how to dispel the romantic myths and grapple with the problematic stuff.

Because I can’t ignore the problematic, I have to use it. I think I may have found a way to do that – I’m at that stage of researching where there are threads coming together, but they’re still a bit loose. (A Transcendentalist might like that idea.)

What I don’t want to do is what the person who composed that chorale piece did – creating an arrangement based one small part of a much greater whole.






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